To Dance, or not to Dance with the Trinity?

kermit-to-self

Me: Read for your paper. Other Me: Write about that Dancing with the Trinity thing for an hour. Nothing bad can happen.

Fred Sanders critiqued a new book by Richard Rohr on the Trinity, The Divine Dance, yesterday at TGC. As with most of Sanders’ writing, it was playful, with puckish humor. It was also atypically forceful for the ever-genial Sanders, condemning the work as crossing the bounds of Nicene and general Orthodoxy at various points. (FWIW, the location surprised some, as well, because Sanders is a quite openly Wesleyan theologian, quite uninterested in defending Calvinism. Apparently, they asked him because he is a well-respected, expert on trinitarian theology in general.)

In any case, it provoked dismay and chagrin among Rohr’s fans and even some more neutral onlookers. I’ll touch on that below, but one interesting question it raised for me was the issue of whether or not we should use the very popular image of the Trinity as a “Divine Dance” in our preaching and teaching.

Dancing with Lewis and Keller

If you’ve heard a sermon on the Trinity in an Evangelical church in the last 50 years, I would not be surprised if you’ve seen the pastor appeal to a very famous passage in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity where he appeals to the image to explain the dynamic, inner life of the Triune God. I mean, I know I’ve used it. In any case, here it is:

And that, by the way, is perhaps the most important difference between Christianity and all other religions: that in Christianity God is not a static thing—not even a person—but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance. The union between the Father and the Son is such a live concrete thing that this union itself is also a Person. I know this is almost inconceivable, but look at it thus. You know that among human beings, when they get together in a family, or a club, or a trade union, people talk about the ‘spirit’ of that family, or club, or trade union. They talk about its ‘spirit’ because the individual members, when they are together, do really develop particular ways of talking and behaving which they would not have if they were apart. It is as if a sort of communal personality came into existence. Of course, it is not a real person: it is only rather like a person. But that is just one of the differences between God and us. What grows out of the joint life of the Father and Son is a real Person, is in fact the Third of the three Persons who are God.

So we see that Lewis is in the middle of a discussion of what it means for God to be love. In the middle of it, he appeals to the image of a dance to begin to speak of the procession of the Holy Spirit from Father and Son as the loving union of Father and Son (per Augustine, ‘the bond of love’).

Beyond the fact that people suck down anything Lewis writes (yours truly included), I don’t know how many books on the Trinity in the last 50 years have simultaneously appealed to the Greek word perichoresis used by some of the Fathers (Gregory, Maximus, later John of Damascus). Originally, the term was used to describe the interpenetration of Christ’s two natures in the incarnation. Later, the term was expanded to speak of the mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity a la the Johannine discourses (“I am in the Father and the Father is in me”).

Now, the word’s etymology can be linked to the idea of movement and aroundness, and so somewhere along the line, the link between perichoresis and dance was born.  In the 20th Century, it’s been used by a number of Trinitarian theologians like Jurgen Moltmann, Miroslav Volf, and others as a key way of speaking about the unity of the persons of the Trinity, the God/world relationship, and sundry other uses that extend beyond the original purposes of the term. We’ve experienced something of a perichoretic overload. The dance has gotten out of hand.  (BTW, we had a Mere Fidelity episode on it here.)

In any case, Sanders’ critique may have left the impression that to use the image at all was heretical in itself. Mike Morell, Rohr’s co-author/transcriber, responded to Sanders’ criticism by pointing out that if the image is off-limits, that’s quite awkward since one of TGC’s co-founders, Tim Keller, has appealed to the image himself in places like The Reason for God. Here is the quote:

The life of the Trinity is characterized not by self-centeredness but by mutually self-giving love. When we delight and serve someone else, we enter into a dynamic orbit around him or her, we center on the interests and desires of the other. That creates a dance, particularly if there are three persons, each of whom moves around the other two. So it is, the Bible tells us. Each of the divine persons centers upon the others. None demands that the others revolve around him. Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them. Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others. That creates a dynamic pulsating dance of joy and love. The early leaders of the Greek church had a word for this—perichoresis. Notice the root of our word ‘choreography’ is within it. It means literally to “dance or flow around.”

Awkward, right? So do Keller and Lewis fall afoul of Sanders’ critique? How about the likely dozens and hundreds of other authors who have used it? Are they immediately to be considered heretics? Should we ditch the dance? What’s going on here?!

To Dance or Not To Dance

Well, given that I’ve gone back and forth about the image myself, I’ve got a few thoughts on the subject.

First, I think it’s important to distinguish between perichoresis and the dance image. The two are different things and you can appeal to perichoresis without invoking the dance. Perichoresis has gotten a bit buzzwordy and goofy, but that’s no reason to ditch the classic terminology. Just use it properly.

Second, there are at least two different uses of the dance image. It can be deployed in an illustrative and modest way, or an intensive and extensive way. In other words, it’s the difference between an image and a model.

I think Lewis is a good example of the illustrative image use. He spends a good deal of time in the book trying to explain things like the eternal generation of the Son, differences in between divine and human personality, and establishing a fairly standard, Nicene view of the eternal relations of Father, Son, and Spirit. And then he casually deploys the dance as an image of the livingness and movement of the divine life without trying to figure out if the dance is a mambo, or a waltz, or something else. It’s quick, it’s illustrative, and it’s done. (Given that he basically uses it briefly in a couple books, I tend to think that this is where Keller fits, too, even if he may fall afoul of the common etymological fallacy Sanders’ mentions in his footnote of the review.)

Others seem to take it as something more of a full-blown model, especially when linking it to a view called social trinitarianism, which takes the persons of the Trinity to be more like modern individuals, with three distinct, centers of consciousness, will, and so forth, who are united in being, but tend to look something more like a family. When the dance image gets invoked, at that point it starts to take on a whole different level of meaning, and we have all sorts of psychological and relational dynamics worked out and so forth. It can become far more intensive and extensive.

Finally, as an extreme version of this, you might do what Sanders says Rohr does: make the image central, set it within a relational metaphysic that has shades of pantheism and panentheism, gesture at a fuzziness in the Creator/creature distinction, downplay Scriptural language for the Trinity, openly disdain hundreds of years of reflection on the issue, talk about femininity within the interstitial spaces between the persons of the Trinity, start suggesting humans belong within it, and, on top of that, suggest we should “ignore the dancers” we were talking about in the first place. (Now, I admit I haven’t read the book, but Sanders has provided direct quotes, and since he has sneezed more Trinitarian theology than I have read, I tend to take his word for it.) If that’s what’s going on, then at that point the problem isn’t the dance image, but this whole, relational, “flow” metaphysic that has started to do all sorts of heterodox things with the rest of our theology.

With these differences in view, I think it’s possible to say that the dance image itself, if used modestly, quickly, and as just that—an image, not a model—is still kosher. I do think it’s good to be careful with these things, though. If you’re preaching, we need to connect to our people, and speak to them about the dynamic, living God. But we also need to remember that the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit has given us the best image of himself in his works in history as the Son comes from the Father in the power of the Spirit to live, die, rise again, and bring us new life in the gospel.

What God has shown and said about himself needs to be our touchstone for everything we eventually say about him. Use the image as and only if you can reinforce something revealed, but be careful you don’t build an entire world around it.

Theology and Idolatry

And this brings me to a final point I want to make. It came up over the summer when this whole Trinity debate happened as well. Some people were shocked yesterday that someone would come out so forcefully to debate about the Trinity (also, there was probably a difference in interpretation of Sanders’ tone).

Still, I think there’s this thought in broader Evangelicalism, both conservative and progressive, that beyond the mere affirmation of it, it’s super esoteric, difficult, and not the sort of thing to get crazy about, because if you do, you’re probably just an academic protecting your turf, or someone who just likes being right for the sake of being right.The order and nature of the persons, the single being of God, and so forth–that’s no reason to write off a person’s work is it?

I have to admit that, in the abstract, there’s part of me that sympathizes.

But this has not been the attitude of the church for most of its history. What’s more, the Bible contains very strong language about idolatry. In Exodus 20, the first commandment is to not worship other gods, while the second is to avoid making up images of God out of your own head. Don’t picture God as he hasn’t pictured himself. Because when we do, we inevitably get it wrong, and start to shrink God down to our size, distort him, and remold him in our image. All throughout the Scriptures the warnings against falsely worshipping him resound, especially in the prophets. It’s not a minor theme.

That matters because, (a) God is holy and majestic and glorious and we shouldn’t distort that, but also because (b) God wants us to know him, relate to him, love him, and receive love from him in truth. And wrong, distorted, heretical thoughts about him hurts that. Eugene Peterson says “a lie about God is a lie about life.” This is not about logic-chopping but about worshiping God in Spirit and in truth (John 4). God gives himself to be known and loved by us, but not in whichever way we want or find congenial, or fires our creativity. He wants to be loved as he is. If anybody is going to accommodate God to our knowledge, it is God himself.

Listen, I get that the Trinity is hard to think and write about. I have struggled to get my own trinitarian theology straight for so long. And if you’re struggling with it, that’s fine. Especially if you’re someone in the pew who is not ordained, or going around teaching people about it.  Or maybe writing entire books on it.

But if people do go writing entire books on it, teaching on it with authority, and then if they get it severely wrong in a way that threatens to mislead many, many people, this seems like the kind of thing it seems worth having a go around about.

Soli Deo Gloria

Jane Austen, Tim Keller, and the Happiness of Holiness

pride and prejudiceAfter many long, inexcusable years, I finally sat down to read a Jane Austen novel; Pride and Prejudice, to be exact. I suppose I had avoided them in my youth because they were the type of thing my sister–a girl, mind you–read. Also, I’d been subjected to the film Sense and Sensibility as a young boy and I’m still not sure what effect that’s had on my disposition ever since. In any case, inspired by my English acquaintances and a sense of nostalgia for literature, I picked up the copy off the shelf last week and got to work.

It was delightful, of course. Singing Austen’s praises is a bit absurd at this point; the humor, lively characters, dialogue, and so forth, was a wonderful change of pace from all the theology and biblical studies. (And ladies, I get it. That Mr. Darcy. What gallantry.)

Now, I’ve known for a while that reading literature is more than simple entertainment. Reading thick literature is a soul-expanding experience, especially with novelists possessing as keen an eye for the richly textured diversity of human experience and character as Austen. Indeed, it’s not simply that Austen was a keen observer, but she was also a moralist in the best sense of the word, whose portraits of virtue and vice not only amuse, but enlighten, shape, and form us. I remember one of the liveliest sections of Alasdair MacIntyre’s magisterial After Virtue was dedicated to examining the shape of Austen’s moral thought. I’m sadly only now in a position to begin appreciating it.

(BTW, spoiler alert on a 200-year-old novel). While there were multiple passages throughout the novel that caught my eye, one encounter between our protagonist Elizabeth Bennet and her sister Jane in particular drew my attention. It is towards the close of the novel, when the amiable, wealthy, generous, and all-around perfect match, Mr. Bingley has finally proposed to Jane and their happiness is secured. Jane and Elizabeth are rejoicing at her good fortune and we find this little nugget of moral wisdom:

Jane: “Oh Lizzy, why am I this singled from my family, and blessed above them all! If I could but see you as happy! I there were such another man for you!”

Elizabeth: “If you were to give me forty such men, I never could be so happy as you. Till I have your disposition, your goodness, I never can have your happiness.”  pg. 331

Elizabeth’s response to Jane ought to be memorized by our particularly discontented and unhappy age. Jane looked at her sister in the rapture of her own delight in her impending marriage to such a good man and wished that Elizabeth might too share in that same kind of joy. For Jane, the cause of her joy and happiness was Bingley and she supposed that if Elizabeth could also have a Bingley, she would be just as happy.

Elizabeth knows better, though. While not writing off the truth that Bingley is a good man and that the situation that goes along with him is a favorable one, she knows that the another significant difference in separates the two young women: their “goodness” and “dispositions.” In other words, their characters. All throughout the novel we are keenly aware that Jane is far more humble, less critical, a bit too trusting, but much more easily contented, and, in a word, more virtuous than Elizabeth. (Though I’m sure some Austen fan could correct me here.) The point is that Elizabeth knows happiness is not only an issue of having favorable external circumstances, or even the possession of a great good, but one of having the right character.

You see, it would not matter if even the most advantageous situation were cooked up, a woman with the wrong character would be unable to enjoy a good husband. The woman lacking in wisdom would be unable to recognize the good man for who he is. The woman lacking humility would suppose the good man is deserved and so would be unable to receive him with the delight of a gift or with gratitude; also, should there be some understandable, human defect, she would be tempted to take it as a greater affront and be less likely to forgive, be contented, or patient. I could go on listing any number of virtues and vices and you’ll the problem. It doesn’t matter how good the situation is, if the virtue is missing, there can be no long-term joy, only short-term pleasures. Of course, this applies equally to men.

I’m reminded of a section in Tim and Kathy Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage where they speak of the happiness of holiness. Many think that marriage is about making you happy, being pleased by and pleasing your spouse. The Kellers show disastrous fruit of pursuing that impossible approach at length. Instead, Paul teaches us that the end-goal of marriage is the holiness of your spouse. Marriage is about sanctification and one day seeing your husband and wife looking radiant, with the beauty of Christlike character. In that setting, the struggles, the pains, trials, as well as the pleasures, joys, and celebrations can take their place as part of a grander whole.

Now, at this point some may get the impression that marriage isn’t about happiness at all. But that would be a mistake. In fact, what we’ve seen with Austen is that happiness and goodness, or happiness and holiness go hand in hand. The Kellers write:

Does this mean “marriage is not about being happy; it’s about being holy”? Yes and no. As we have seen, that is too stark a contrast. If you understand what holiness is, you come to see that real happiness is on the far side of holiness, not the near side. Holiness gives us new desires and brings old desires into line with one another. So if we want to be happy in marriage, we will accept that marriage is designed to make us holy.

-Timothy and Kathy Keller. The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (pp. 124-125).

While being so much more than this, Austen’s novel, in many ways, is parable about that suitability of character in marriage, and the happiness that attends holiness. I’d commend you, then, to pick it up, make yourself some tea, plop yourself down into a couch, and prepare to be entertained and maybe even edified at the same time.

Soli Deo Gloria

Keller on “Conservative Christianity After the Christian Right”

KellerTim Keller gave a lecture at the Faith Angle Forum on “Conservative Christianity After the Christian Right” last year that I only just managed to get a transcript of recently (HT: Andrew Fulford). While I’d encourage you to go read the whole thing, I thought I’d just pull some clutch observations on various subjects to whet your appetite. Just a note, when Keller speaks, he admits it’s all tentative and that he’s mostly talking about white Protestants, except when he explicitly addresses other demographics. So, take that into account.

3 Trends in the Future of American Protestantism:

One is that conservative Protestant Christianity is going to be growing moderately in numbers and greatly in cultural diversity and racial diversity in a fragmented culture. Secondly, conservative Protestant Christianity is going to become consciously outside the box politically, but not consciously outside the box theologically. And, thirdly, it is going to get both more and less culturally influential simultaneously, with the end result in doubt.

On the loss of the Religious Umbrella:

It used to be that the devout and the mushy middle — nominal Christians, people that would identify as Christians, people who would come to church sporadically, people who certainly respect the Bible and Christianity — the devout and the mushy middle together was a super majority of people who just created a kind of “Christian-y” sort of culture.

Luis is right in saying lots and lots of unaffiliated people are not atheists or agnostics. But what has happened is that the mushy middle used to be more identified with the devout. Now it’s more identified with the secular. That’s all.

So what’s happening is the roof has come off for the devout. The devout had a kind of a shelter, an umbrella. You couldn’t be all that caustic toward traditional classic Christian teaching and truth…What is changing is for the first time in history a growing group of people who think the Bible is bad, it’s dangerous, it’s regressive, it’s a bad cultural force, that was just never there. It was very tiny. And that’s because the middle ground has shifted, so it is more identified with the more secular, the less religious, and it’s less identified now with the more devout.

On White Religion v. Global Growth:

First of all, as we have already seen, it is mainly white people who are getting more secular in the world. White people. Just keep that in mind, since most of you are. And there is a tendency…for us to think it is just impossible to overcome this practically. That we are reality, and because so many of our people are getting more and more secular and unaffiliated, and so forth; this is the way the world is going. It’s just not true. I understand that by 2050 maybe only 30 percent of the world will be white, something like that. So white people are definitely getting more secular, but they are not the majority of the world.

…There has been an enormous influx, and now almost certainly out of the eight million New Yorkers, 10 percent are Pentecostal Christians. My son is an urban planner, works for the city of New York. He says when you go to Manhattan community boards, they are very secular. But if you go out into the Bronx and Queens and Brooklyn, places like that, he says community boards…he says, “They are opened and closed in prayer,” especially in the Bronx, because it is all led by black and Latino Pentecostal ministers. They are the community leaders.

On seeking the Good Without Assimilating:

There is a huge movement inside conservative Protestantism right now to say, “The best thing you can possibly do with your faith is just go get a job and be a thoughtful, non-triumphalistic, but also non-assimilated Christian in the major cultural industries.”

Did you hear that? It’s a very powerful movement that says the best thing you can do is not try to take over the country. After all, we’re not supposed to be a Christian nation. All right? “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” We don’t do that. We’re a pluralistic nation.

On the other hand, we don’t want to just assimilate. The Bible gives us views of human nature and human thriving and human good and the purpose of life that are very different than the secular. So go out there and get involved and be very thoughtful Christians in your job. Serve other people, but do it on the basis of what your own understandings are, your own moral intuitions are, and integrate your faith with your work, and in a non-triumphalistic way, but a non-assimilations way, get out there.

On Preaching to Connect with Cultural Narratives:

As I have already said, you have to connect to baseline cultural narratives. You have to say that Christianity is better than secularism at dealing with cultural difference. I’ll give you an example of that. It is better at making sense out of suffering. It is better at actually giving you a basis for human rights and justice.

You have to learn to go inside and say these are things you want. Charles Taylor’s great book Secular Age says secularism actually doesn’t have the intellectual resources to support many of its own commitments.

You’ve got to learn how to say that in more accessible language. And if you learn how to reason and not just say, “Jesus will make you happy,” but, on the other hand, not just beat on people from the outside but come inside their own beliefs, find their own cultural narratives and say, “Look, Christianity can…” — your life narrative will only have a happy ending in Jesus. And whatever your narrative is, there is no happy ending except in Jesus.

There is a way of doing that, and a lot of churches don’t know how to do it. I think if they do do that they are going to get a lot of traction. Secondly, you’ve got to pull off creating real communities that at least take seriously the fact that people are individualists.

Part of Answer on Louie Giglio and Bigotry (find it to see the full context):

DR. KELLER: To the Louie Giglio thing. I don’t know, other than to say one of the dictionary definitions of bigotry, one of them, is lack of respect for or an effort to silence contrary opinion.

Now, I know that the comeback is that, “We don’t let white supremacists have equal say in the public square. We won’t put you in prison for believing in white supremacy, but you are not going to have a license for your radio station, you’re not going to get an accreditation for your school. And we need to treat the view that homosexuality is a sin exactly the same way. It doesn’t deserve respect. It should be silenced.” That’s one view.

And that is the view I think that was represented by the people that said you can’t have anybody in the public square representing God and representing the faithful at a situation like this if you have a view that there is something wrong with homosexuality.

The only comeback would be Jonathan Rauch’s approach, which is to say if it’s really true — I doubt it, I personally don’t believe it at all — but if it’s really true that orthodox religion –…He says if orthodox faith does morph to the place where people still have that high view of the text, they are still people “of the Book”, and we have completely embraced the idea of homosexuality as one way of loving and marriage, if that does happen, it will take a long time, a very long time. Not the sort of thing that could happen in 20 years or 50 years, in which case we need to learn to live together. We really have got to be civil to each other on the way.

We can’t do what we did in the civil rights movement, which is basically shame the one group out of the public sphere. Don’t do that or you are going to find it is not going to work. It is going to create terrific civil strife because that 30 percent of devout people is a big number of people. Not enough to win an election, but you certainly can’t just marginalize them and say you are beyond the pale. You’ve got to show respect. They have to show respect, too.

So I would just plead for civility and say to Christians, because of what Miroslav Volf says about Christian identity — it is not based on difference, at least it shouldn’t be, it doesn’t have to be — therefore, in some ways, we should be the peacemakers. We should be the people who are the least threatened. We should be the people who are most willing to say, “Let’s talk” and be civil and the most gracious. And we should at least try to take the lead in that. We may not be listened to. So there are some ideas.

On the Decline of the Mainline:

By the way, mainline churches, for example, just don’t start new churches. And part of the problem — Lyle Schaller, who was kind of a church consultant pundit, said years ago because mainline churches flooded the country, so that almost every square inch was part of some parish, it made it almost impossible to start a new church, even when there were all sorts of populations in a community that couldn’t be reached by the older Episcopal church, but you couldn’t start a new Episcopal church because we’re the Episcopal church of this area.

But Lyle Schaller said that evangelicals like to say mainline churches declined because of their liberal theology. But, actually, he says they declined because they stop starting churches, whereas evangelicals have always started new churches.

There’s far more to it, especially in the Q & A sections.

Soli Deo Gloria

“Do I Have To Go To Church to Be a Christian?” A Few Rough Thoughts

church“Do I really have to go to church to be a Christian?”

I think just about every Christian has either asked or been asked that question at some point in their time in the faith. For reasons too numerous to list right now, we live in a non-committal age about these things. We’re busy with our work lives, schedules, amusements, children’s sports, video games, sleep, and so forth. What’s more, generally speaking, religion is generally a private matter for Americans, and so when we hear that we have a “personal relationship with Jesus”, we tell ourselves that means “private” and nobody else’s business, certainly not that bunch of strangers up the street at church.

On top of that, Evangelicals with a youth-group level understanding of justification by faith tend to think that to require something like church attendance is a denial of grace itself. The question of whether or not salvation is riding on church attendance turns into the idea that it’s sort of an optional add-on.

As the issue’s been on my mind a lot lately, yet without any real, over-arching thesis, I thought I’d simply offer up an assortment of rough-shot answers sort of cobbled together in order to deal with the initial question. So here goes.

Obedience 

The other day, someone asked Tim Keller in a Twitter Q&A, “Can a person be a Christian without being a member of a church?” to which he responded:

The text in question reads:

 Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. (Heb. 13:17)

The point is very simple. In the Bible, Christians are commanded to submit and listen to the elders and deacons (pastors, etc) whose job it is to guide, guard, and love them. Well, if you’re not a member of a church that has those leaders, you can’t very well submit to them now can you? The implication is that everyone who has professed faith in Christ is also simultaneously a part of a local body of believers. (For 11 more reasons membership matters, see here.)

The same point could be made with respect to attendance in the local body:

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb. 10:24-25)

The, seemingly, clear command of Scripture is that believers are supposed to be regularly gathering together for the express purpose of encouraging on another, stirring each other up to love and good works in the Lord. Sounds a lot like going to church, doesn’t it? If you read the rest of the New Testament, the assumption seems to be the same. There’s no contingencies imagined where a Christian would be profitably separated off from the body for a time. Indeed, simply asking the question, “What would Paul or John say about the necessity of gathering with believers in worship?” makes the whole thing rather obvious.

Still, yes, theoretically, I’d agree you can be a Christian, be regenerate, and so forth, and not currently be in regular attendance in church. But, and this is Keller’s point, there is no way you can claim to be a Christian who is actually trying to obey Jesus and grow in godliness without it. What’s more, you can’t say you’re striving to love Jesus either. Jesus says “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15), which include those delivered by his apostles in the NT.

And here’s the kicker, the point where my “yes, but you’re not obedient” turns into a “maybe not.” John tells us that those who are born of God don’t “make a practice of sinning” (1 John 3:9), or disobeying God’s commands. In other words, while we may struggle with sin, believers will not set themselves in long-term hostility to God’s commands. Yet if we continue to look at God’s commands to gather with other believers and say, “You know, I see what it says, but I don’t agree, and I’m not going to obey because I don’t think it’s necessary”, there’s a real chance that disobedience is evidence of a lack of saving faith. If you’re a believer who is no longer hostile to God’s law (Rom. 8:7), the commands of God exert a force that, in the long-term. leads to greater obedience. In which case, one way or another, your butt’s gonna end up back in the pew.

4 More Reasons

The other day I wrote a piece on “dating advice” for Christians. Essentially I said that one of the key markers of a godly relationship was your commitment to the other person’s involvement in the local body. I then listed four reasons why you want your significant other seated in the pews weekly. It turns out they’re just good reasons to go to church in general, so here they are in an abridged form:

  1. Sit under Real Preaching. I don’t have the kind of space necessary to speak of the manifold benefits of sitting under regular preaching, but I’ll list a few.
    1. First, it convicts of sin and humbles us before Christ. A heart that doesn’t submit to listening to the law will be hardened against any call to repentance…
    2. Second, it reminds us of the gospel. Unless regularly reminded of the grace of Christ, the heart will begin to sink into sin, go into hiding, and find its deepest affirmation in things other than Christ…
    3. Third, the Word of God truly preached brings us by the power of the Spirit into the presence of Christ.
    4. Finally, we need to hear an outside word that we can’t quickly rationalize, twist, distort, or ignore.
  2. Meet with Other Believers…
  3. Receive the Lord’s Supper. Whether you’re a Baptist, Anglican, or Presbyterian, you want to be regularly reminded that Christ alone is the source of spiritual life—he died, rose again, and our union with him is the only true food for your soul. We need to feast on this truth regularly, or we will be tempted to draw strength from other, lesser sources… (Additional note: this one, more than any other, simply cannot take place outside the regular gathering. Scripture expects we will be celebrating the Lord’s Supper with other believers in a community that knows your confession.)
  4. Worship God Alone. Our souls need worship. Yes, everything we do under the sun is worship. Work is worship. Play is worship. Sleep is worship. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that the corporate gathering of the people of God, in receiving the supper and lifting our voices in song, prepares and shapes the desires of our hearts to focus on God throughout the whole week.

Can’t v. Won’t 

At this point an objection should be noted: “What if you can’t get to church? What if you live in a country that doesn’t have any churches?”

Well, then I’d say we’re dealing with a very special case. I think there is a very real difference between “can’t” and “won’t”, though. Sometimes we think we can’t, when the real issue is that we won’t. For many of us, we “can’t”, not because there are no churches around, but because there are no churches that we like around. We either don’t like the vibe (too big, too small, too old), or maybe something more valid such as issues with the theology (too Reformed, too Wesleyan, too Dispensationalist.) Still, going by the state of the churches Paul was writing to in the New Testament (debauchery, random heretics running around, etc.) the gathering of the body is so important that even some (very) serious flaws, let alone preference issues, shouldn’t be an obstacle to meeting together.

Now, if you’re actually in an area with literally no churches and no possibility of getting to one, then, that’s a different story. I also think there are some tragic situations, where after spiritual abuse, some time in therapy and a little space to heal, including a temporary break from more formal attendance, can be appropriate*. That said, according to the New Testament, this is far from ideal or normative. The person in the US looking for a reason to not have to go to Church can’t really build a theological argument based on that one guy on an island somewhere who doesn’t have an option. Really, the more that I think about it, unless you manage to move into an area with no churches as a missionary, it’s unlikely you’re going to come to faith without at least one or two other believers around that you can meet up with regularly.

On that point, my buddy Gavin Ortlund had a stunning point in his review of a book that’s actually entitled How to Be a Christian Without Going to Church:

The fact that cultural trends function with theological authority for Bean may explain why some of the reasons she provides for abstaining from church feel self-indulgent (not to mention rather Western and suburban). At one point she observes, “The effort it takes for over-committed, overextended people to get to a 90-minute service or give time to programs and church events can be too much. Sometimes staying home on a Sunday morning seems like the best way to remain sane” (57). In earlier times in Christian history, and in other places of the world today, believers risk their very blood in order to worship together. This is the mandate of Hebrews 10:25, where in a time of persecution “not neglecting to meet together” is part and parcel with holding fast to the faith.

I feel grieved and embarrassed wondering how Christians outside the contemporary West—Christians who walk a dozen miles to meet with their church, or who meet underground for a 10-hour service—would feel about the idea that sitting in an air-conditioned sanctuary for 90 minutes is just too difficult.

Gavin’s right on the money. There are believers around the world who risk their lives to meet in secret with 4 or 5 other believers in an apartment to read the Scriptures and sing to Jesus no louder than a whisper, while we complain that Sunday morning is “the only day I get to sleep in, you know?” This is hardly “take up your Cross and follow me” stuff we’re talking about.

Inertia and Magic Neutral Time

Make no mistake, this is an urgent matter. This is not the kind of thing where you can say, “You know, I know it’s important, but I just can’t get to it right now. When things calm down, then I’ll make time to gather.” When you do this, you’re operating on the “magic neutral time” principle:

…that faith is unchanging, timeless, and perennial. Your walk with Jesus is something you can leave alone for a while and, once you’ve done your own thing for a bit, pick up again. “Neutral time” is like calling timeout so you can go the restroom or take a break in the middle of the game; when you come back the score, time, and possession is just like where you left off last.

I call this explanation “magic” because basically nothing else in life works this way. If I decided, “You know, for the next few months, I’m not going to watch my diet or work out or take vitamins or anything. Then I’ll just pick it up again and be right back where I am now.” If I think that’s how it will work, I’d be sorely deluded.

See, when it comes to the spiritual life, inertia is a real thing. It’s kind of like the gym. One week off here and there is fine. It happens. But when one week off becomes two, two becomes a month, a month becomes a year, and so on. The less you go, the more you become accustomed to the time, or fill it in with other things, or things like guilt and shame start weighing in and make thing the thought of going even more oppressive. This is not an exaggeration; I’ve seen this many, many times, and it has long-term, wide-spread effects throughout your life, beginning with your relationship with Jesus.

Conclusion

I suppose this post has served more of a negative purpose. Not in the sense that my tone was super negative, but that I didn’t spend quite as much time making a positive case for the beauty, goodness, and blessings of membership and regular worship, so much as ruling out a number of unhelpful ways of thinking about the issue. Ah well. While the positive case should be given priority (and, indeed, forms most of the bulk of the New Testament’s witness about the necessity of the Church), planting the seed, so to speak, sometimes you need to clear the brush too.

While we could go on for a few more pages here, you get the point. “Can you be a Christian and not go to church?” I suppose the better question is, “What kind of Christian are you trying to be?”

Soli Deo Gloria

*To those who have been harmed in church, I know your pain is real. My sister is an MFT who loves to give care to those who have been wounded in the church. Let me put it this way, though, if you’ve ever been harmed by medical malpractice, eventually you have to go back to the doctor to have him fix what the first one damaged, right? There are healthy churches out there, ones that can deal compassionately and graciously with the wounded and bring the healing words of Jesus to bear on your life.

Keller, Evangelical Polarization, and the Folly of Measuring Coffins

So, the Evangelical twitter world just had another blowout this week. While these sorts of things happen every month or so, providing a bit of cathartic release from the build-up of rage, veiled contempt, and genuine frustration, this last one over the World Vision hiring policy kerfuffle seemed particularly nasty. Hysterical accusations were levelled, tweets were tweeted, unfriendly farewells were traded across the aisle, and a few sane arguments were sprinkled in for good measure.

In the middle of it all, on an unrelated note, Tim Keller tweeted out this:

It echoed his opening analysis in his best-seller The Reason for God, which seems worth quoting at length:

There is a great gulf today between what is popularly known as liberalism and conservatism. Each side demands that you not only disagree with but disdain the other as (at best) crazy or (at worst) evil. This is particularly true when religion is the point at issue. Progressives cry out that fundamentalism is growing rapidly and nonbelief is stigmatized. They point out that politics has turned toward the right, supported by mega-churches and mobilized orthodox believers. Conservatives endlessly denounce what they see as an increasingly skeptical and relativistic society. Major universities, media companies, and elite institutions are heavily secular, they say, and they control the culture.

Which is it? Is skepticism or faith on the ascendancy in the world today? The answer is Yes. The enemies are both right.

Skepticism, fear, and anger toward traditional religion are growing in power and influence. But at the same time, robust, orthodox belief in the traditional faiths is growing as well. The non-churchgoing population in the United States and Europe is steadily increasing. The number of Americans answering “no religious preference” to poll questions has skyrocketed, having doubled or even tripled in the last decade. A century ago most U.S. universities shifted from a formally Christian foundation to an overtly secular one. As a result, those with traditional religious beliefs have little foothold in any of the institutions of cultural power. But even as more and more people identify themselves as having “no religious preference,” certain churches with supposedly obsolete beliefs in an infallible Bible and miracles are growing in the United States and exploding in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Even in much of Europe, there is some growth in church attendance. And despite the secularism of most universities and colleges, religious faith is growing in some corners of academia. It is estimated that 10 to 25 percent of all the teachers and professors of philosophy in the country are orthodox Christians, up from less than 1 percent just thirty years ago…

In short, the world is polarizing over religion. It is getting both more religious and less religious at the same time. There was once a confident belief that secular European countries were the harbingers for the rest of the world. Religion, it was thought, would thin out from its more robust, supernaturalist forms or die out altogether. But the theory that technological advancement brings inevitable secularization is now being scrapped or radically rethought. Even Europe may not face a secular future, with Christianity growing modestly and Islam growing exponentially.

–The Reason for God, pp. ix-x

As I thought about it, I couldn’t help observing that it seems like we’re witnessing something of the same thing at work in Evangelicalism, with some slight variations. On the one hand, you see more conservative tribes, especially of the Reformed sort, talking about the growth of the movement, praising the blitz of theologically-conservative books, and conferences. On the other hand, its not hard to find progressives and post-Evangelicals speak about the tide going their way, the upsurge of popular support amongst the younger generations, a similar spate of books, and general grass-roots rejection of conservative ham-handedness.

So who’s right? From where I’m standing, they both are. What seems to be getting lost is the Evangelical middle. Why? Well, probably a lot of reasons, but in view of the last week’s “dialogue”, in the technologically-amplified Argument Culture, centrist voices tend to get marginalized and the loudest mouths dominate the air/screen-time.

Now, though I line up theologically more to the Reformed right, as I you might be able to tell, I don’t think this is necessarily a good thing. While the ‘Evangelical middle’ isn’t always some theological safe zone, a spectrum is usually more helpful in terms of thoughtful conversation and deliberation that a highly-politicized, whole-package, two-party system you have to buy into in order to have a voice. In a polarized culture, every event, every issue becomes a battle-line to take your place on. While I don’t mind laying my cards on the table most of the time, I do like having a full deck to choose from.

As for long-term prospects, I’d say that in light the overall secularization of culture and the broader influence of liberal theology in the culture, despite the institutional decline of the mainline that Christian Smith and others have talked about, progressives and Post-Evangelicals do seem to have the cultural edge.

Of course, it’s an open issue whether they can pull their disparate streams into the corresponding institutions needed to sustain a full-fledged movement. Its anti-hierarchical, and, at times, anti-doctrinal stance makes that more difficult than more conservative or confessional groups. What’s more, I have admit, I do wonder if the superficial unity we see on flash-point cultural issues, or in vocal opposition to mutually-disdained conservative organizations, covers a deeper, disunity on fundamental presuppositions within it. Who knows? I’m just spit-balling here.

CoffinsFollowing off of this, if Church history teaches us anything, it’s that measuring coffins is an ugly business and an unpredictable one. All you have to do is study the ebb and flow of the Trinitarian controversies in the 4th century to know what I mean. A lot happened between the First and the Second councils of Nicaea.

This is why I’ll admit that I kind of cringe when some Reformed types talk in self-assured tones about the “death” of the emergent movement. The name died, sure, and Brian McClaren books maybe don’t have the sex-factor they used to, but evaluations like that still underestimate the movement’s long-term impact, and metamorphosis into the Post-Evangelicalisms of various sorts we’re seeing.

On the flipside, when progressives talk about millennial exodus from Evangelicalism and hopefully predict the imminent death of its conservative expressions, they ignore how much of that movement is not to progressive forms, but to conservative communions like Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and other confessional traditions. What’s more, these prognostications seem a bit parochial in their focus on the Western, American context at the expense of the growth of robustly conservative Christianity in the Majority world and Asia.

Now, for a final note that may undermine all of my ramblings: we Evangelical/Post-Evangelical Twitteratti (and yes, I do include myself in the mix now), often-times have an over-inflated sense of the importance of our own conversations. For every blog post shared, thousands wouldn’t think to waste their time reading one. Not that it’s right, but more American Evangelicals probably know about Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow breaking up than they do about the World Vision (non-)decision this week. Every once in a while, it’s good to step back and take a breathe on this stuff.

Soli Deo Gloria

“I Just Believe in One Less God Than You Do”–Or Not

atheism-believing-in-one-less-god-than-you-age-quoteIn the spirit of recycling (and nostalgia), I’ve rifled through old conversations I’ve saved from my pre-blogging, internet correspondence to see if there’s anything serviceable. One dialogue in particular found me channeling Tim Keller on the subject of idolatry. One chap, an aggressive atheist of the Dawkinsian sort, was challenging me on my juvenile belief in God and trotted out the now-famous quote among the New Atheist set:

“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

–Stephen H. Roberts

After giving a lengthy list of reasons I have for believing in God, I addressed the quote (grammar:

At this point, I would like to address your quote. I think the question is not whether or not you believe in one less god than I do. I think the reality of the situation is that irrespective of the particular propositions we affirm, we both worship gods. The difference between you and I is that I’ve chosen the Christian one and that in all likelihood, you remain oblivious to the nature of yours.

Let me explain what I mean.

Functionally-speaking, everybody has a “god”, even if they don’t have a “religion.” You have something that you’ve placed at the center of your life that gives it direction, meaning, purpose, and value. You devote your time, energy, love, and affection to this thing as if it were the most central thing in the universe. That, in the monotheistic traditions, is what is called an idol. It is a god-substitute. The point isn’t whether or not you will worship a god. The point is “which god will you worship?”

The Christian claim is that if you match Jesus up with any other god, he wins all day, every day, and (of course) twice on Sundays. So, if you match Jesus up with the most common American god, Money, Jesus wins. Jesus is totally better than money. Money never satisfies. It never delivers what it promises. You can work for it, slave for it, sacrifice everything at the altar for (like your time, relationships, children, marriage, health) and in the end, even when you get it, it lets you down. You keep needing more and more and it never fills that gap. Also, if you don’t get it, if you fail your god, the crushing despair you feel can’t be relieved. Money doesn’t forgive you. When money is your god, being poor is a sin and you’re gonna have a hard time working that off of your soul.

In any case, money can be devalued, can be lost (think market crash in 2008), and, in the end, will distort your soul if you make it the ultimate thing in your life. Jesus ,on the other hand, well, he’s not going anywhere. He doesn’t accept you based on your performance, but by grace, loving you despite all your flaws. He forgives you when you fail. He delivers on what he promises. I could go on of hours, but you kinda get the point. Jesus > Money. Name anything else, even really good things, (Jesus > relationships, Jesus > your personal freedom, Jesus > sex, Jesus > power, Jesus > fame, Jesus > stuff, Jesus > a career, Jesus > status, Jesus > being a rockstar, etc.), and Jesus wins every time.

And remember, you already worship something. You build your sense of self on something. Something is already your god. I don’t know what your particular god is, but I know you have one. The question is whether or not you recognize it, and how well does it match up against the God revealed in Jesus Christ. That is why I think Mr. Robert’s quote, while being trivially true at the purely propositional level, is fundamentally wrong.

A few years on, I would probably adjust tone and my specific elaboration, and yet the fundamental point still holds. The world isn’t divided up between believers and non-believers, worshippers and non-worshippers–we all believe and we all worship. The fundamental difference is the object of our belief and worship–Jesus, or something else.

Soli Deo Gloria

It’s all the Aragorn Parts

aragonrSo, I’ve noticed an interesting trend in the way I read fantasy or sci-fi novels (aside from the fact that I have less time to read it). Whenever there is a multi-thread plotline, with the author following multiple, inter-connected story-lines, I tend to have one or two favorites that I follow very intensely, and one or two that aren’t quite as compelling.

For instance, when reading the Lord the Rings Trilogy, in the later books when the Fellowship breaks up and we split to follow the various story-lines of Frodo and Sam, and Aragorn & Co. I always found the Aragorn bits far more compelling. I’m not saying that the Frodo thread wasn’t fabulous as well, but, let’s be honest, the Dead Marshes can be a bit…well, less lively than one of Aragorn’s romps through Rohan.

Interestingly enough, I found early on that my reading habits were much the same way with Scripture. There were passages and threads that were enticing and compelling, and some that…well, while still God-breathed, seemed like he wasn’t breathing as hard.

What do I mean? Well, while the Chronicles have their moments, the Gospels capture our attention from beginning to end. Jesus’ doings and saying are never boring, or tedious, or to be suffered though in order to get to the good part. In this way, and, actually, in many others, the story of Jesus is the Aragorn bits of Scripture. The rest of it, well, I might get that they’re necessary and, yes, good, but at times I feel myself ‘getting through’ them. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling this way.

Now, the funny thing about this is that ever since I listened to Tim Keller and Edmund Clowney’s lectures on preaching, I’ve been an advocate of a Christ-centered hermeneutic of the sort taught to us by Jesus, the disciples, the Fathers, and the Reformers, emphasizing both the redemptive-historical and typological reading of Scripture. In other words, to read and apply the text properly you have to see how this somehow this leads, points, foreshadows, or is fulfilled in Christ.

For example:

  • Adam- Jesus is the Second Adam who brings righteousness with one righteous act.
  • Abraham and Isaac- Jesus is the only Son, sacrificed by the Father for us to provide salvation.
  • Moses- Jesus is the Greater Moses who brings his people out of a greater Exodus, not from slavery to Egypt, but out of slavery to sin and death and the devil.
  • Passover Lamb- Jesus is the greater Passover Lamb whose blood was shed to cover you so that the destroyer would passover.
  • Day of Atonement- Jesus is the Great High Priest who enters once and for all to offer up sacrifices, as well as the final sacrifice offered.
  • David- Skipping ahead, Jesus is the greater Son of David, who, like David, defeats our enemies in single-combat, winning a great victory for his people.

We could go on for days here, but those are some easy and obvious ones to give you a picture what I’m talking about. If you’re looking at it from a canonical perspective, everything points to Christ, whether law, prophets, wisdom literature, or poetry.

So where am I going with all of this? Well, it struck me the other night as I was teaching my college students about this way of reading Scripture that, essentially, when read properly, it’s all the ‘Aragorn bits’. There isn’t any bit that somehow isn’t connected, or can’t be seen in light of Christ.

This is why it pays to not skim, to eventually read and study it all. Admittedly it takes a bit more work for some to see Christ in Leviticus, or a genealogy in the Chronicles. But as any mountain-climber knows, when the hard work is done, when we scale the summit of the text, the view we get of Christ is spectacular.

For those interested in learning more about how to read the Scriptures with Christ at the center I’d recommend these resources:

The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament by Edmund Clowney
Jesus on Every Page: 10 Simple Ways to Seek and Find Christ in the Old Testament by David P. Murray

Soli Deo Gloria